More Than a Plate

The basic US Army mess kit (M1910 Meat Can). Not only did soldiers like to carve their personal information onto their mess kits, they apparently liked to have photographs taken with them.
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A salute to the WWI Mess Kit

by Alexander Barnes

 In a scene familiar to all American servicemen of the 20th century, the dipping line was required to clean the mess kits before and after use.

In a scene familiar to all American servicemen of the 20th century, the dipping line was required to clean the mess kits before and after use.

It is true, the majority of US militaria collectors tend to chase the uniforms, helmets, patches, and medals of the soldiers and Marines who served in elite units such as the Special Forces, Alamo Scouts, LRRPs, 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, and the like. Even collectors who focus on the periods of military history before these units existed, such as the First World War, chase after the painted helmets, uniforms, medals, and photographs of the 2nd, 42nd, and the 77th Divisions, as well as the Air Service and the Tank Corps. And that’s okay. These are all definitely worthy of pursuing. But keeping in mind that there really are a finite number of some of the most highly desirable (and expensive) items, perhaps it might be a good idea to look into also collecting some of the more mundane — yet very important — pieces of a soldier’s gear.

 One discouraging factor in researching and collecting mess kits is that heavy use and rough handling often makes the manufacturer’s initials and date extremely difficult to read as shown by this example.

One discouraging factor in researching and collecting mess kits is that heavy use and rough handling often makes the manufacturer’s initials and date extremely difficult to read as shown by this example.

As has been written in many of the histories of the US Army in the Meuse-Argonne, the problems encountered with trying to feed and supply the 1.2 million Doughboys were monumental. Bad roads, bad weather, and sometimes, bad discipline, led to many hungry days for many troops.

Getting supplies forward to the fighting units always hard. In one example, it was made much harder when German artillery knocked out one of the pontoon bridges being used by the 29th Division to provide logistical support. As the history of the 113th Infantry Regiment would later record, “we had no breakfast, no dinner and no prospects of supper. The kitchen had gotten stuck in a shell hole…under these conditions; permission was granted to eat the reserve rations.”

 French-made kits are easily identified by the use of iron, sharper edges, darker color and the almost double weight in comparison to US-made mess kits.

French-made kits are easily identified by the use of iron, sharper edges, darker color and the almost double weight in comparison to US-made mess kits.

Many other divisions also reported that their frontline infantrymen had gone several days without receiving rations. Soldiers straggled away from their units in search of food. Some were reduced to looking through packs of dead or captured German soldiers hoping to find something to eat. Even after the Armistice, the only question asked more often than “When do we go home?” was “When do we eat?”

So, with all that in mind, here is a quick look at the humble, yet incredibly important, tool that carried the food: The basic US Army mess kit (M1910 Meat Can). Not only did soldiers like to carve their personal information onto their mess kits, they apparently liked to have photographs taken with them.

 Sometimes the mess kit itself is worthy of attention and study. This mess kit is one of the relatively few that were made in France during the war. In an attempt to reduce the amount of cargo being shipped across the Atlantic, the Services of Supply contracted for many such items to be produced locally.

Sometimes the mess kit itself is worthy of attention and study. This mess kit is one of the relatively few that were made in France during the war. In an attempt to reduce the amount of cargo being shipped across the Atlantic, the Services of Supply contracted for many such items to be produced locally.

In a hobby where collecting combat-used equipment and theater-made items is often the focus, the truth is that such pedestrian items as mess kits, knives, forks, spoons, canteens, and canteen cups may be the closest a collector can get to the front lines. Most Doughboys received completely new uniforms before demobilization. Many of their helmets were turned in for refurbishing. In contrast, no efforts appear to have been made to exchange mess gear. After the hungry days of the Meuse-Argonne, no self-respecting Doughboy would venture far from his eating utensils. In their words: “Hey, when do we eat?”

 The inside of the mess kit could also serve as a canvas. Here a Maryland Doughboy from the 115th Infantry Regiment has carved his name and unit information. Of note is his carving “Bois de Holzberg” on the side. This may reflect the German trench raid on 31 July 1918 at the Bois de Holzberg that caused the 115th’s first combat casualties of the war. They would not be the last.

The inside of the mess kit could also serve as a canvas. Here a Maryland Doughboy from the 115th Infantry Regiment has carved his name and unit information. Of note is his carving “Bois de Holzberg” on the side. This may reflect the German trench raid on 31 July 1918 at the Bois de Holzberg that caused the 115th’s first combat casualties of the war. They would not be the last.

 Doughboy Humor: A member of the 18th Evacuation Hospital in Trier, Germany, pretends to serve a mess kit meal to Doughboys from the Third Army and the 42nd Division.

Doughboy Humor: A member of the 18th Evacuation Hospital in Trier, Germany, pretends to serve a mess kit meal to Doughboys from the Third Army and the 42nd Division.

 A nicely carved mess kit belonging to a soldier from Company B, 315th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division.

A nicely carved mess kit belonging to a soldier from Company B, 315th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division.

 Sgt. Bert Fidler (on right), 39th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, poses with a friend and his new mess kit. He wrote home and talked about machine gun fire “riddling my pack. The mess kit in my pack was shot full of holes, my corn willy and hard tack was shot to pieces and I didn’t have anything to eat for nearly 3 days.” Courtesy Matt Fidler

Sgt. Bert Fidler (on right), 39th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, poses with a friend and his new mess kit. He wrote home and talked about machine gun fire “riddling my pack. The mess kit in my pack was shot full of holes, my corn willy and hard tack was shot to pieces and I didn’t have anything to eat for nearly 3 days.” Courtesy Matt Fidler

 Less artistic than his fellow Virginian Sgt. Barney, Samuel J. Austin, from the very small town of Fincastle, Virginia, managed to carve a crude image of Betsy Ross sewing the first US flag on the pan portion of his mess kit.

Less artistic than his fellow Virginian Sgt. Barney, Samuel J. Austin, from the very small town of Fincastle, Virginia, managed to carve a crude image of Betsy Ross sewing the first US flag on the pan portion of his mess kit.

 An unidentified Doughboy poses for a formal portrait with his mess kit and canteen cup in a French studio.

An unidentified Doughboy poses for a formal portrait with his mess kit and canteen cup in a French studio.

 The mess kit belonging to Sgt. Henry P. Barney, a Signal Corps NCO assigned to the 305th Signal Battalion, 80th Division. Barney, from Hampton, Virginia, deployed out of Newport News in June 1918, and returned May 1919.

The mess kit belonging to Sgt. Henry P. Barney, a Signal Corps NCO assigned to the 305th Signal Battalion, 80th Division. Barney, from Hampton, Virginia, deployed out of Newport News in June 1918, and returned May 1919.

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